Mid Sep | 320 km | 1D | Trail | F:150 | 100 HL | △△△△ | United States
When I arrived in São João after driving from Sao Paolo, I didn’t have an address for the race check-in. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I had time to ask around, but the check-in was only open for another hour. I stopped at a gas station, hoping that the town was small enough that the owner would know about the race, but it turned out he didn’t speak English.
Serendipitously, I spotted a few folks in bright orange Brazil 135 T-shirts filling up their truck. They didn’t speak much English either, but I pointed to their shirts and they got the point. They gestured that I should follow them, so I did. We soon arrived at the meeting hall where all of the pre-race activities were held. As I walked in, my anxieties about getting there in time and taking on my first +100-miler melted away. It was just another race expo, with new products to try and race packets to pick up. Like any other race, I’d get through it.
Racers were sharing tips and stories from last year. I ran into my friend Bogie from the Marathon des Sables and met some of the other runners. By chance, I bumped into the only other female American competitor, Cheryl. Cheryl had completed the Brazil 135 and Badwater a few times, so she had plenty of tips to share with me on completing such a distance. Since I hadn’t been able to find much information about the race logistics online, I took notes as Cheryl explained that there were a few sections of the course that were impassable by car.
The support cars would have to leave us at these points and join up with us down the road. During those times, our pacers would run with us. Apparently quite a few people had also made arrangements for somewhere to sleep along the course. I hadn’t thought about that, figuring we would take turns sleeping in the car, if at all.
As I sat down for the pre-race meeting, awaiting instructions for the race, I felt way underprepared. Cheryl had been meeting with her crew for months, making a race plan, setting expectations, and going over contingencies. She knew all the rules and had a schedule to follow. In contrast, I was still texting my crew, Alex and Augusto, to coordinate an initial meet-up after they’d been introduced to me through a mutual friend.
I grew even more anxious when I learned that Alex and Augusto would not arrive in São João until 9 p.m. that night. It was past midnight when we got to bed, and we needed to be up by 6 a.m. to buy more food. I was going to have to take on an arduous 48-hour race while I was sleep deprived from the start. There would be climbs of up to 800 meters straight and only 10 flat miles the whole way. I was the most inexperienced, underprepared runner there, hands down. I wanted to back out, but knew I couldn’t. I needed this race to qualify for Badwater, and I’d travelled all the way from New York to Brazil to make it happen.
At the start line, I felt a deep sense of relief for having made it that far. It had been a logistical nightmare just to be standing there, waiting for the gun to go off. I’d had issues with my visa, had to change my flights, and even had to drive a manual rental car for the first time in over a decade. Once I started running, the weeks of built-up stress melted away. I still didn’t know if I’d finish, but at least I’d started putting one foot in front of the other.
At Aguas da Prata, 12 miles into the race, Alex and I met up with Augusto for our first pit stop. My knee was feeling great and my body felt ready to take on the many miles to come. We sent Augusto on to the next town and followed in his tracks. The next 12 miles were tame, especially since Alex was keeping me on a tight leash, warning that I’d break if I set the pace too aggressively. Since I’d just met Alex, I wasn’t sure whether he was giving me this advice out of experience or because he was afraid of being unable to keep up. But I was too inexperienced to argue, and Alex had done me a huge favor by just showing up.
Alex and I arrived at mile 25 ready to refill our water bottles and fuel our bodies. We were about to tackle the greatest climb of the race, roughly 2,625 feet over six miles. But among all the support cars waiting for their runners at the base, we could not find Augusto. There was only a small waiting area, so we were sure he wasn’t there and we did not have cell phone reception to reach him. Without a better option, we bummed water and bananas from another crew and set off up the hill. The hill itself was way easier than I’d imagined. Once I put my head down and resolved to press on for as long as the climb took, time took care of the rest. After reaching the top, the same path that had taken me two hours to ascend took only 45 minutes to run down. I enjoyed the descent immensely, but my mind was too preoccupied with contingency planning to feel fully free. What would I do if Augusto was not at the base of the hill? How would Alex and I meet up with him again?
We reached the base and found that Augusto still wasn’t there. Even worse, since it was early in the race and Alex and I had spent time trying to contact Augusto before heading up, we had lost the pack. There were no support cars in sight. Fortunately, we had filled up our water bottles at the top of the hill, so we had enough to drink. I was carrying three extra running gels, so we had enough to eat for now.
We had roughly a half marathon to the next potential meeting place and figured that we could make it that far without support. We set off along the dirt path, figuring it was probably safer than staying still. Alex and I reached Andrades, where we hoped Augusto would be waiting, but he wasn’t there. Again, we had to take stock of the situation and make a move. We had been out of gels and water for three miles. I needed a sports drink and to re-tape my knee, but I was otherwise in good shape. Alex was less than happy, but he was hanging in there.
When we caught up to a few other racers, we asked one of their support teams to refill our water bottles and provide us with a bit of food. Since we couldn’t reach Augusto on the phone and we didn’t want to risk losing the pack again to wait for him, we decided to push forward. It was only eight miles to the next town, Serra dos Limas. We underestimated the hills, though, and did not reach Serra dos Limas until nightfall. Thankfully, we had made contact with Augusto as we were nearing the town.
The reception had been spotty and short-lived, so we did not have a concrete plan for where to meet. But we thought, and hoped, that Augusto had gotten the gist of it and would be waiting for us. We ran to the town square where a few other support cars were waiting, praying all the way. But Augusto was not there. He was almost certainly on the way to Serra dos Limas, it was just a matter of finding him. Anything but staying put would undoubtedly perpetuate the problem; so we did what any good ultra marathoners would do: borrowed some money from another support team, sat down at a restaurant, and ordered a pizza.
It was nice to eat a real meal and to have at least a few dollars on us for security. All of our money had been in the car. Everything was in the car! But as I watched support car after support car leave for the next checkpoint at Barra, I felt that the race was leaving us behind.
I was frustrated and anxious about the feasibility of completing the race, especially within the 48-hour time limit to qualify for Badwater. I finished eating and then lay down on a park bench in the middle of the town square, wrapped in a foil emergency blanket, to rest. I caused a small spectacle as people stared and wondered why a strange lady wearing a bright orange shirt was wrapped in silver fabric, sleeping on a park bench. My only concern was continuing the race, though. Two and a half hours later, Alex was finally able to contact Augusto. Fifteen minutes after that, we caught sight of the car. It was just a white VW Golf, but in that moment, it was the most beautiful car in the world.
Eager not to waste even a minute more, I changed socks and shoes, re-taped my knee, grabbed my headlamp and reflective vest, ate some bread, and talked with Augusto and Alex to develop a plan for coordination going forward. It was dark, so we decided that Augusto would follow directly behind Alex and me to shed light on our path and to avoid separation. I was trying to be optimistic and motivating as we set off, but part of me was still doubtful that we would be able to complete the race in time. I was dreading spending the night running in the darkness, tired and cold, especially knowing it might all be futile.
Just as these negative thoughts ran through my head, we noticed a couple of racers lying on the ground resting. It was Alex’s friend Gustavo, so we stopped to say a quick hello. Gustavo is blind and he and his pacer had gotten lost, costing them several hours. Nevertheless, they’d made it 48 miles using a short rope to stay together. As Alex and Gustavo were catching up, talking about how tough it had been for the pair to get through the hills, I thought to myself, who am I to complain? I tried to take on a better attitude.
The hilly, 5-mile path from Serra dos Limas to Barra took us over an hour to navigate. When we arrived, Gustavo’s team told us that he had dropped out of the race. They were holed up in a pousada for the night and they invited us to take a rest there. I was anxious to keep going and started to decline, since we had unintentionally rested so much in Serra dos Limas. Alex, however, heard there was pasta on the stove and could not be convinced against taking a break. As much as I didn’t want to be, I was annoyed.
We had a car full of food and had just started going again an hour ago. Why did he need pasta? I knew it was useless to protest, so I tried to rest on a few wooden chairs while my support team ate. It felt like a waste of time. The more we lingered, the harder I’d have to run to make up for it. After 20 minutes with no indication that the boys would be ready anytime soon, I decided the only way to make the stop worthwhile would be to extend it and get an hour’s worth of true shut-eye.
I hurried to the shower, ripped off my sweaty, uncomfortable clothes, and washed the salt and dirt off of me. A few minutes later, I tucked myself into the most comfortable bed I have ever sunk into, or at least it felt that way at the time. I set my alarm to wake me up in an hour and quickly fell asleep. The stress of the race logistics and the 53 miles I’d covered had drained my energy, but at least I would have a chance to replenish my stores.
Exactly an hour after I’d left the dining room, even before my alarm rang, Alex came in and sat on my bed. “Katie, wake up. We’ve got to get moving.” It was an abrupt wake-up, but it got me going. I quickly got our of bed, put on my running shoes, and scuffled out into the cold night air, trying to leave any lingering sense of annoyance behind. I was physically and mentally in pain, but happy to be going again. My legs were stiff, but I knew they would warm up soon.
The next 10 miles were relatively easy, except for an insanely steep 600-foot climb and descent. Just after sunrise, Alex and I reached the 60-mile checkpoint at Crisolia. No sooner had we arrived when one of the race director’s friends, Pedro, appeared and yelled out, “Katie? Is that you?!”
When I replied yes, Pedro said, “Katie! I’m so glad you made it! We’ve been tracking you, but then we lost the signal. I was worried, but all is well now. Now I can relax. How’s everything going?”
It was such a relief to hear this. It reminded me that I was still part of a race and there were people tracking my progress, even though it had been hours since seen any runners besides Gustavo. But then Pedro recommended that Alex, Augusto, and I take a “true rest” somewhere so we could resume our journey faster and stronger. While this is the last advice I wanted to hear, I ultimately supported it. My legs felt extraordinarily heavy, and Alex and Augusto hadn’t slept at the last stop.
We decided to go five more miles to Ouro Fino and rest there. Around 7 a.m., we arrived and met another team that was resting at a pousada. Finally we were back with the race! Alex and Augusto started chatting with their friend on the team, but I made a beeline for the bedroom. If I was going to rest, I wasn’t going to waste a second of time.
I set my alarm to go off in three hours and fell asleep. I dreamt I was back at Stanford, since I was in business school at the time, telling my friends about the race and how I’d dropped out. “I gave it my all at the start, but we lost the support car and couldn’t make up the time. I began questioning why I was even running a 135-mile race and I decided that it was best just to realize when enough is enough.” Even in my dream, I felt an irreparable sense of regret for having given up on the Brazil 135 mid-stride. Just as I was longing to go back, to make a different decision, I woke up.
Relief washed over me that I still had a shot at finishing the race. That’s not the story I wanted to tell. Now I knew what was at stake. I had to give it my best to make the 48-hour cut off or I wouldn’t be able to go home at peace.
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